Saturday, May 5, 2018

Q&A with Steven B. Frank

Steven B. Frank is the author of Class Action, a new novel for kids about a boy who tries to abolish homework. He also has written Armstrong and Charlie and The Pen Commandments. He is a middle school teacher, and he lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Class Action and your character Sam?

A: He might not recognize himself, but "Sam" is my son Sam five years ago, a boy who longed for free time to play jazz piano, shoot hoops with me on the driveway, and follow his curious mind to websites about Herbie Hancock, astrophysics, Minecraft, and more.

There were constant family fights over "must-dos" before "may-dos," homework worksheets, looming school projects, and a Reader's Log that had to be assiduously kept every night. (It killed his joy of reading, by the way.) 

A similar struggle had taken place when my daughter, now 20, was in elementary school. One night I distinctly remember the sound of snapping twigs, as though Maurice Sendak's forest had grown in our dining room. It was Sophie breaking #2 pencils in frustration over the nightly Sudoku required by her math teacher.

Q: As a teacher, what's your view of homework? How much do you assign?

A: I've been getting asked this one a lot lately. Yes, I'm a teacher. Yes, I give homework. But I try to make it meaningful. For instance, I ask my students to read every weekend. About 30 minutes will do the trick.

If it's a reading in philosophy, I'll give a short writing topic too. Recently we read a chapter on free will vs. fate, and so I asked them to deliberately change a family plan and write about how that felt to interfere with "fate."

Most of them pointed out that my assignment to change their fate was probably pre-ordained; they just didn't know about it. But they enjoyed the task.

Or I'll ask them to notice 10 things they've never noticed before; then, in class, we'll write poems about that. Mostly, though, I just ask them to read.

Q: Your book is dedicated to hundreds of your students, and you list all their names. How did you decide on this dedication?

A: 1,400 is the approximate count, I think. I wanted to acknowledge by name all the students who've taught me how to teach, who've filled my "day job" with such joy, and whose lives over the years I have touched, with inspiration I hope, but also with homework. If it's ever declared unconstitutional, the dedication is my plea to remain out of jail.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write this book?

A: I did A TON of research for this book. First I read and was energized by the works of Alfie Kohn, a very sane and disruptive thinker about education (The Homework Myth and The Feel-Bad Education).

I also read books on Supreme Court cases involving kids' rights, and I listened to transcripts of oral arguments on I read the research on homework (The Cooper Study) that suggests that it does little to improve learning outcomes in elementary and middle school.

And I read Amanda Ripley's book, The Smartest Kids in the World, to learn about homework in high-achieving foreign school systems. (They don't give much.)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I know that kids suing to stop homework is the "hook" of Class Action, but I hope that its heart comes from something Sam misconstrues when his principal says, "Civil Disobedience in a classroom is an oxymoron." Sam thinks the principal just called him a moron, but he comes to learn the meaning of "oxymoron" and "paradox" as well.

My hope is that, no matter what their cause, kids will know that "student activism" is NOT an oxymoron; it's our path to a better world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a novel about a 16-year-old boy who is trying to save humanity's last hope for meaningful communication: the hand-written letter. Things get very confusing in his heart when he falls in love with two different girls: his far-off pen pal, and his carpool mate who lives next door. It's called Sincerely, Pez.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Steven B. Frank.

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